Our political editor, WALTER CRONXITE, checks out some straws in the election wind caused by the Brexit storm, as neighbouring councils hold their elections today
Londoners might be spared the bother of going to the polling stations today, but for local authorities in much of England, including those councils just over our borough boundaries in Surrey, the work and achievements of their local councillors are up for judgement.
In the context of a collapsing Westminster government, Brexit, the pending European elections and the schisms between various political parties, the voting in the shires today might provide a more reliable indicator of public opinion than any public opinion pollster.
And anecdotally – often in anecdotes from Conservative Party members and activists – the Tories are in deep trouble.
Disillusionment over Theresa Mayhem and gaffe-prone Gavin Barwell’s handling of the Brexit negotiations, and the emergence of Farage’s Brexit Party, has seen thousands of Tory party loyalists up and down the country outright refusing to canvass on behalf of their own candidates, with many publicly stating that they will not be voting Conservative today.
The pitiful-sounding plea “don’t punish our local councillors for the mess at Westminster” has been made more than once by senior Conservative figures, including by Crispin Blunt, the MP for nearby Reigate.
“Local Tories have stopped canvassing because of the doorstep fury they have received over Brexit,” according to one political activist in Tandridge.
Thing is, even if voters do turn out to vote “anti-Tory”, in many areas, especially around the fringes of south London, there are not any obvious alternatives on the ballot paper. Usually true-blue areas such as councils in Surrey are unlikely to be painted red overnight, while the TIGgers and Brexit parties are not organised enough to have candidates standing in all wards in all councils.
Might the Greens or UKIP benefit? The answers provided at the ballot boxes could be instructive.
The seats up for grabs today were last contested en masse in 2015, on the same day as a General Election, something which, at least, guaranteed a greater number of voters taking part in local elections than the usual miserable, apathetic turn-outs. Turn out today is predicted to be very low because usually well-motivated Tory supporters may simply refuse to vote at all.
The always knowledgeable Andrew Teale, on the must-read Britain Elects website, previewed today’s voting by saying, “The 2015 local elections were held at the same time as the General Election, which to general surprise returned David Cameron as the first and so far only Prime Minister of a majority Conservative government since John Major… This is the first year since 1995 that this cycle of local elections has been able to stand on its own.”
Teale notes that had the European Parliament elections not been organised at the last possible moment, then these local elections would in all probability have been held to coincide with them.
And he adds, “By coincidence, 1995 was a bloodbath for the Conservatives in local government.”
The other unpredictable factor to add to the mix are boundary changes, as have been made in nearby Reigate and Banstead.
Until today, that council had 51 seats, 39 held by Tories, six by Residents’ Associations, three Green and one LibDem (who is not seeking re-election). There are two seats vacant.
That’s been reshuffled to 45 seats in 15-three seater wards under the new boundaries.
Only the Tories are contesting all the seats. Labour have gaps on their slate. They have three candidates in eight wards, two in four wards and just one candidate in four wards – so 12 short of a full slate.
UKIP, now led by Islamophobe Gerard Batten, have a single candidate in each of nine wards – making them 36 candidates short of a full district slate.
The Greens have been very active, as they seek to maintain their three council seats (two in Redhill East and one in Earlswood and Whitebushes), and perhaps add to them.
They are running full slates in the two wards where they already have councillors, with the candidates’ party description the somewhat unusual “Green Party First Choice, Green Party Second Choice and Green Party Third Choice”. Which might work.
Overall, the Greens are 27 candidates short of a full slate, but they are clearly targeting those areas where they believe they have best prospects.
The past fortnight’s Extinction Rebellion protests in central London and around the globe may have been the best bit of campaigning the Green Party has ever enjoyed. Canvassers there have noted familiar concerns about affordable housing and Green Belt development, but also, according to our source, “for the first time Climate Change is being mentioned as an issue,” they say.
“Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough have pushed the issue to the fore of voters’ minds.”
Banstead Village ward’s candidates illustrate, colourfully, quite how complicated voting “anti-Tory” can be today. The Conservatives duly have a full slate of three candidates, while UKIP, the Greens and Labour have one candidate each. So any Banstead Village resident wishing to register a protest vote against Mrs Mayhem’s Tories today faces a multi-coloured swapshop and will have to vote purple, green and red.
To anyone familiar with the high number of candidates who usually contest local elections in Croydon, the lack of competitiveness – and to an extent, democratic choice – in some of the wards once you go outside Greater London is quite striking.
With the boundary changes likely to favour incumbent Conservatives, Reigate and Banstead ought to be a Tory hold.
Things, though, are less certain for Conservatives elsewhere around the fringes of south London.
Tandridge, for instance, could see the Conservatives lose overall control.
They currently cling on to power with a one-seat majority, having lost eight seats last year. Expect Oxted and Limpsfield residents and other independents to make gains alongside the LibDems, leaving the Conservatives with 15 out of the 42 available seats.
Following some controversial multi-million-pound investments in the property market by Elmbridge’s Tory council, Teale, at Britain Elects, is predicting that residents’ associations will take over there, matching the resident-run council in neighbouring Epsom and Ewell, where as Inside Croydon reported yesterday, one of their candidates is a former LibDem councillor in Sutton.
Epsom, Teale says, “may be the constituency of international laughing stock Chris Grayling but you can’t reasonably put the blame for Tory underperformance in his district’s local elections at his door; the Residents have run Epsom and Ewell for decades and their council majority is in no danger whatsoever.”
If anything, the polls point to the RAs making a three-seat gain in Epsom and Ewell, taking 34 seats, potentially including the incinerator-supporting Monica Coleman, with Labour unchanged on three seats and the Tories almost wiped out, potentially losing three seats from the current four.
Imagine the possibilities if some of Croydon’s well-organised residents’ associations took the hint, and decided to put up candidates in their wards…
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